Step It Up In The Philippines

3 December 2015
Read Time: 6.9 mins

You must have seen the slogan: ‘It’s More Fun in The Philippines’.

Conjured up by the Filipino tourist authorities, it’s appeared on billboards across Australia; a confident catchphrase designed to trumpet the country’s burgeoning tourist appeal.

While Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (okay, Bali) may offer more conventional, temple-strewn Southeast Asian escapes, there are tons of reasons to opt for the Philippines; 7,107 at least. That’s the number of islands that comprise this balmy archipelago.

The nation is a fusion of Asian, European and American influences, thanks to its geographical position and its past as a colony of Spain and the US.

An incredibly diverse destination, home to some of the friendliest people on Earth, the Philippines caters to every type of visitor, from culture vultures and spa connoisseurs to beach bums and surf nuts (not forgetting hikers, shoppers, foodies and rum aficionados).

With so many places to choose from, planning a trip can be tricky. So here’s some advice on what should be on the itinerary.

 Man-made marvels: the astounding World Heritage-listed rice terraces at Batad


There’s no denying it: Manila can be an in-your-face introduction to the Philippines. However, as well as being the country’s main entry point and springboard to many of its idyllic tropical islands, the Filipino capital is an absorbing place to explore.

While this mega-metropolis of over 12 million people is characterised by a frenzy of vehicle beeps, toots and exhaust fumes, it’s not all chaos. There are cocoons of relative calm in a city once known as the‘Pearl of the Orient’.

Manila’s most beguiling quarter is, unquestionably, Intramuros. Founded by Spanish colonialists in the early 16th century beside Manila Bay, this walled, cobblestoned historic core is regarded by Filipinos as the ‘soul’ of this deeply Catholic nation.

Although it was flattened in World War II, when its Japanese occupiers were targeted by American bombing raids, Intramuros was pieced back together and now exudes a quaint, old-fashioned Latin charm, with a neo-Romanesque cathedral, chunky fortifications, Andalucian-style villas and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages.

For a contrasting, modern feel, head to Makati. Metro Manila’s main business and entertainment hub, this skyscraper-packed district has a glut of swanky hotels and malls.

Split into five sections, the Greenbelt Mall fulfils most shopping desires and also has leafy, open-air green spaces with alfresco bars, cafes and restaurants.

The Philippines’ arresting history is charted in Makati’s Ayala Museum, where the 60-strong collection of carved wood dioramas convey tales of pre-historic Filipino hunters and the country’s time under Spanish and American control, then home-grown dictatorship and democracy.

Makati has an unusual claim to fame: it boasts the first Raffles ‘Long Bar’ outside Singapore. When I pop into this refined yet rather eccentric establishment, folk are sipping cocktails crafted by suave mixologists and snacking on complimentary peanuts. As custom dictates, patrons drop the shells on to the tiled floor, generating a chorus of crunching underfoot.

While it resembles Singapore’s classic watering hole (where punters have been tossing ‘monkey nuts’ since the British colonial era), the walls of this Raffles are decorated with contemporary Filipino artwork, including a collage of boxer Manny Pacquiao.

Arguably the most popular Filipino alive, ‘Pac-Man’ brings the Philippines to a halt when he steps into the ring. Even Manila’s notorious traffic jams disperse – but only until the end of the fight.

 A descendant of the ancient Igugao: a villager in Baguio in traditional dress

The Cordillera

Post-Manila, you might fancy hitting the beach. But there’s plenty of time for that. Instead, stay on Luzon (the largest Filipino island) and head up into the Cordillera – the mountainous region that starts a few hundred kilometres north of the capital.

The main draw of these luxuriant parts is the astounding World Heritage-listed rice terraces. Believed to date back to 2000BC, these man-made marvels, cobbled together from mud and stone, cascade down the hillsides surrounding the villages of Batad and Banaue. So iconic are these terraces that they feature on the back of Filipino peso notes.

On the main square of Banaue, beside a hodge-podge of buildings made of tin, wood and concrete (many containing grocery shops, bakeries and rice stores), a scrum of drivers with tricycles (motorbikes with covered sidecars) and jeepneys (elongated former US army jeeps used across the Philippines as public transport) jockey to take tourists to the best viewpoints.

At the clearings just outside Banaue, you’ll see elderly men and women dressed in traditional folk costumes and feathered head-dresses, willing to pose for photographs for a small tip.

They’re descendants of the ancient Ifugao, one of myriad tribes who have been living in the highlands since well before the 16th-century Spanish colonisation of the Philippines.

As well as crafting the terraces, the Ifugaos’ artistic talents are evident in a variety of hand-made wood and fabric crafts (which you’ll find for sale in the Cordillera’s souvenir stalls).

For the most spellbinding vistas of the terraces – and arguably a more ‘authentic’ experience – make a beeline for Batad, which for many Cordillerans is the jewel in the region’s crown.

Vehicles head towards this tiny hamlet from Banaue, but, such is Batad’s isolation, they can’t go all the way. The closest drop-off point is a hilltop known as the Saddle – from which you walk for about an hour to Batad along a marked trail.

You can trek alone, but a couple I’ve shared a ride with hire one of the guides waiting at the Saddle. Noah is 18 and, for 400 pesos (A$11), he takes us on an exhilarating loop; heading first to Batad, population 1,000, no roads, no roaring jeepneys or tricycles.

We pass playful children, crowing roosters and bare-footed men and women working ankle-deep in paddies. We hike through steep, forested hills and eventually reach a clearing where a gushing waterfall cools us down.

Then we get hot, sweaty and breathless again by ascending to the most phenomenal panorama. Teetering along Batad’s terraces and climbing up and down the stone steps is a stunningly scenic but heart-pumping experience. We definitely deserve some beach time now.

 A mesmerising sunset on Boracay


Happy Hour on White Beach – the pearl of Boracay island – has begun and I’m idling in a rattan armchair outside one of the bars that spill on to this four-kilometre strip of silky-smooth sand.

My ice-cool mango mojito is going down almost as quickly as the sun is slipping into the gently swaying sapphire waters of the Sulu Sea.

Filipino massage ladies gently tout for business. Local fishermen rub shoulders with gangs of wiry topless Boracayan blokes dragging their paraws (traditional sailing boats) ashore. A few people are bathing in the bath-tub warm sea.

As the big red ball vanishes over the horizon, the sky morphs from a fading blue canvas into a mesmerising one smeared with oranges, pinks and velvety purples.

Nestled 380 kilometres south of Manila, Boracay is the most hyped Filipino island, its big reputation sitting in stark contrast to its diminutive size (it’s just over 10 square kilometres).

Fringed by giant, swaying palm trees laden with coconuts, White Beach has topped several best-beach-in-the-world surveys.

Purists moan that it isn’t what it was, and they do have a point. In the 1970s, White Beach was near-virgin, foreigner-free territory, dotted with palm-roofed wooden shacks and little else. Nowadays, it has something for everyone, with the atmosphere changing every few hundred metres.

One minute you’ll be in a chilled-out and uncluttered space; the next, everything will be buzzing and built-up. All tastes – and wallets – are catered for.

There’s heaps of beachside accommodation, from backpacker dens and austere apartments to fancy 5-star pads and designer bungalows.

They’re nudged by watersports agencies, diving schools, massage stations, juice bars, cocktail lounges, seafood restaurants, pizzerias, Wi-Fi-enabled cafes, karaoke joints and nightclubs.

 The splendour of Cebu Cathedral


Markedly less frantic than Manila, Cebu is the Philippines’ second major entry point. Air passengers land on neighbouring Mactan Island where, in 1521, Iberian explorer Ferdinand Magellan met a violent end at the hands of local chieftain Lapu-Lapu.

Close to a towering bronze shrine to Lapu-Lapu, you’ll find the Crimson Resort and Spa, the type of lavish 5-star beachside hideaway that the Philippines excels in.

Among its accommodation options are 40 luxurious private villas with individual plunge pools and ample palm tree-shaded areas, where you can sip fruit smoothies and catch up on some daydreaming.

A 20-minute taxi ride from the airport in the other direction, Cebu City is a different kettle of fish. It boasts the Philippines’ oldest church, street and a ruined Spanish fort – although, in truth, little remains of its colonial heritage, with modern malls and markets dominating the vibrant centre, alongside some of the country’s tastiest eateries.

While not as globally famous as Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, Filipino food is flavoursome and varied, with adobo the much-loved national dish.

A vinegary, garlicky stew, it comes in myriad variations – notably beef, pork, chicken and shrimp – and is served, with rice, more or less everywhere, from posh bistros to boisterous backstreets.

One Cebu speciality is lechon (spit roasted suckling pig). In his quest to find the city’s best, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of his No Reservations show here, and declared the lechon at Cebu institution Zubuchon as: ‘Best pig ever!’

You can’t leave the Philippines without sampling its favourite dessert: halo-halo is an energising concoction of milky crushed ice, fresh fruit (such as mango, banana and papaya) and ice-cream. It’s ideal on a scorching afternoon.

A busy seaport, Cebu is the launchpad for ferries and catamarans going to dozens of Filipino islands, including Camiguin (a pear-shaped gem with seven volcanoes), the surfing mecca of Siargao, and Siquijor, famed for its mystical faith healers and shamans.

 Swimming with the whale sharks at Panglao


Possibly the most tempting diversion from Cebu, however, is Bohol. Boundlessly bucolic and rife with water buffalo, the island is renowned for its surreal Chocolate Hills, which are green for much of the year, but turn a rusty shade of brown during the February-May dry season.

There are more than 1,200 of these conical mounds, which were formed by coral deposits sculpted by millennia of wind and water erosion. The planet’s tiniest primates, wide-eyed and outrageously cute tarsiers, can be spotted hiding among the trees at Bohol’s Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary.

You’ll find more exotic creatures swimming in the waters off Panglao, a little island attached to southern Bohol.

 A tarsier among the trees at Bohol's Philippine Tarsier and Wildife Sanctuary

Rivalling Apo Island (off Negros) and Puerto Galera (on Mindoro) as one of the Philippines’ premier dive sites, Panglao is the jump-off point for glimpsing colourful schools of tropical fish, reef sharks, blueringed octopuses, turtles, manta rays and maybe even whale sharks (though the best place to swim with these giants is usually Donsol, off southern Luzon).

A rich array of birdlife flutters around the banks of the Loboc River, a wide stream that snakes sluggishly through Bohol. You can take a cruise on floating restaurants. Alternatively, head to the Loboc Ecotourism Adventure Park, which has a zipline and an open-air cable car ride.

 Cruising the Lobac River in Bohol's jungle


It’s just over an hour’s flight from Manila, but Palawan evokes a sense of the remote and mysterious. This densely vegetated, sparsely populated island oozes an Eden-esque magic, especially once you leave behind Puerto Princesa, the languid provincial capital.

Palawan isn’t just stunning on the surface, either. You get a real sense of wonder by taking a boat trip along the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River.

Said to be the longest navigable underground river in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage site winds 8.2 kilometres underneath a mountain range through an awesome fossil-rich karst cave, before emerging into the South China Sea.

Yet for many travellers, the most beguiling destination in Palawan is El Nido. Full of cool little places in which to eat, drink and sleep, this jungle-fringed town in the island’s north has an enchanting natural setting, edged by daunting limestone cliffs, postcard-perfect beaches and sparkling emerald lagoons.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to the Philippines.

Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.